Wednesday, May 25, 2011

`The Only Fault I Could Find With Them'

Most of the fifth-graders, including my middle son, have been playing their instruments only since the start of the school year. In front of us like a wall of densely packed hoplites sat the clarinets, about thirty-five of them; to our left, the flutes. Behind them, brass and percussion (lots of percussion). Around them bristled their chrome-plated music stands. In the back row, visible rarely and then only the tops of their carefully brushed heads, sat Michael and the rest of the trombone section – all boys, all reveling in the comic potential of their chosen instrument.

Tuesday evening was the big spring band concert, the one they’d been rehearsing since fall. The program emphasized slow tempos and oil-rig rhythms – “Eagle Summit March,” “Musette” (“J.S. Bach Arr. Feldstein and O’Reilly”), “Galactic Episode,” “Cardiff Castle” and “Lamb Chop Rock” (a welded-together arrangement of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). Each piece possessed the under-appreciated quality of brevity.

The real show, heavily choreographed, was the audience, holding aloft digital cameras and camcorders, as though making offerings to indifferent gods. As listeners, they were forgiving. Applause was loud and sustained, rivaling the performance.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with a retired teacher, age seventy-two, who volunteers at school. He’s been listening to the late pianist Oscar Peterson, one of whose final performances he attended in Seattle about five years ago. We swapped Peterson stories, I urged him to give Art Tatum another listen, and then told him about Tuesday night’s impending band concert. He said:

“I remember those days. It’s not about the music, you know. That was usually awful. You’re there for the kids.”

Moran, the narrator in the second half of Beckett’s Molloy, recalls the Elsner sisters, “not bad neighbours, as neighbours go,” and their cook, Hannah. Of them he writes:

“They made a little too much music, that was the only fault I could find with them. If there is one thing gets on my nerves it is music.”

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